Tag Archives: freedom of speech

Charlottesville—One Poison, Two Bottles

Alt-Right, Alt-Left, “both sides,” white supremacists, Antifa, CEO resignations:  America is having a moment. Tempers are flaring, and statues are falling. President Trump and the press are in an angry stand-off.

The death of a young woman, Heather Heyer,  in the midst of protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the injuries to 19 others at the hands of a driver who used his car to plow other cars into a crowd, reminded some of us of another shocking burst of violence: the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings, when members of the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students, killing four. Protests against the Vietnam War, some of them violent, were a familiar part of the news during those years, but the wanton killing of protesters was new, and it changed things.

I don’t know that Heather Heyer’s death, apparently at the hands of a 20-year-old neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields, Jr., will have the long reverberations of Kent State, but the mainstream press is trying very hard to give the whole Charlottesville debacle that kind of watershed significance.

From the Cooper Union to Charlottesville

I’d like to pull back a little and consider some of the pieces, especially those that connect to higher education. The higher education connection isn’t incidental. Colleges and universities have often been the stages for those who seek to make large declarations about America, and especially about race.  Think of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in February 1860, in which he laid out his opposition to slavery as consonant with the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

The ghost of Lincoln is surely somewhere in the background of the Charlottesville riot. Richard Spencer and his white supremacist friends held their “Unite the Right” rally at Lee Park, on Saturday, August 12, ostensibly to protest the planned relocation of the large statue of Robert E. Lee. The struggle over slavery that led to the secession of eleven states, including Virginia, April 17, 1861, led to Lee’s fateful decision to turn down Lincoln’s offer of command of the Union Army in favor of serving the Confederacy. History has given Lee a generally kind assessment despite that decision. The esteem in which he is held by many who have no sympathy with the Southern cause rests on the way he met defeat. He spared the United States from what could have been decades of further hostility by counseling his supporters to lay down their arms.

What does a nation do with a figure of great historical importance who lent his weight to a bad cause? We are still, all these years later, wrestling with that question. It deserves a patient and thoughtful answer, but it has become entangled with demagoguery on both the right and the left.

The statue of Lee in Charlottesville was first seized as a symbol by the identitarian left, who made it an emblem of racial oppression. Spencer and his Alt-Right supporters then charged in, happy to endorse the conceit that Lee should stand for white privilege. The planned “Unite the Right” rally was meant to inflame the left and to summon counter-protesters. Violence was expected and welcomed on both sides—though to say that now invites the silly accusation that the term grants “moral equivalence.” No, it just registers the reality: both sides in this confrontation believe violence is a legitimate tool in pursuing their political ends.

UVA

On Friday night the Alt-Right protesters staged a torch-lit march on campus from the steps of the Rotunda across Thomas Jefferson’s “Academical Village,” the very center of the university. UVA president Teresa Sullivan understood the connections and put out a statement through the university’s newsletter, UVA Today, “In Aftermath of Violence, Sullivan Reflects On Challenging Weekend.”

In part, Sullivan said: “The University is about freedom of speech, but free speech is not the same as violence. We strongly condemn this kind of abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community.”

Indeed, free speech is not the same as violence, and my colleagues and I at the National Association of Scholars applaud the spirit of Sullivan’s statement.

How Higher Ed Contributed

The provocations of the Alt-Right protesters and the tragic consequences of their Saturday rally, however, cannot be wholly isolated from the stream of events in American higher education in the last few years. The Alt-Right didn’t spring out of thin air. Moreover, the use of mass intimidation wasn’t unknown on college campuses—including UVA. The deterioration of the ideal of free speech has been accelerating, and the feebleness of college authorities, when confronted with outrageous tactics by protesters, is now practically established as standard operating procedure.

UVA didn’t invite this compound catastrophe, but it wasn’t entirely an innocent on-looker either.

Charlottesville’s City Council voted 3-2 in February to move the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee from the city’s central square. The Council’s vote followed a report last year from a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. Voices of the UVA community played a significant part in the acrimonious debate over the statue. For example, the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted UVA Religious Studies professor Jalane Schmidt, comparing President Trump’s refugee policy to defenders of the Lee statue as evidence of an “empathy gap.” The monument, in Schmidt’s view, “enshrined” in Charlottesville “leading white citizens’ contempt for black humanity.”

Schmidt’s opinions in this matter voice what has become a very familiar line of historical interpretation, one shared with a fair number of people in the UVA community. But for the sake of clarity, I’ll stick with Schmidt’s views in particular. Was putting a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park really an act of “contempt for black humanity?” I suspect that an examination of the records of Charlottesville from 1919 to 1924 would not offer much evidence that a public display of “contempt” was part of the motive. A commodities trader named Paul McIntire commissioned the statue in 1917 from sculptor Henry Shrady, who died before finishing it. The job was completed by Leo Lentelli. McIntire purchased the site for Lee Park and donated the monument to both the City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.

History Lesson

Shrady was picked for the commission after America’s most eminent sculptor, Daniel Chester French, declined it but recommended Shrady, who was completing the massive monument to Grant in Washington, D.C. and had previously executed the equestrian statue of George Washington in Brooklyn.  Shrady’s successor on the Lee statue, Leo Lentelli, was born in Italy in 1879 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. Lentelli had numerous other public commissions including decorations for the San Francisco Public Library, the Sixteenth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, and the Steinway Piano Building in New York City. He is best known for “The Savior with Sixteen Angels” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

All these are details I’ve culled from a 1997 application to the National Register of Historic Places to register the Lee monument. It makes for interesting reading, not least because twenty years ago the thought that the Lee monument was an instrument of racial oppression seemed completely absent from anyone’s mind. Shrady, a native of New York who spent 19 years creating a monument honoring Ulysses S. Grant, and Lentelli, a twentieth-century immigrant from Italy who liked to sculpt angels, seem unlikely to have harbored nostalgia for the antebellum South or animus against “black humanity.”

Paul McIntire, the philanthropist who started out as a coffee trader, was a lover of art and music who lavished gifts on the University of Virginia, which he had attended for a single semester. He endowed a chair in fine arts and contributed the funds to create a Department of Music and Department of Art.  These acts, of course, do not preclude his being a closet racist who wanted a statue of Robert E. Lee to cast a shadow of contempt over the black residents of Charlottesville—but it is hard to see any evidence of that. When Professor Jalene Schmidt leveled that accusation against Charlottesville’s “leading white citizens,” she must have been thinking of someone else. Or was she making a wild surmise based on nothing but the projection of today’s intensified racial resentments onto the past?

Racial Reductionism

It is a tricky question to ask because those with a mind to do so can easily read into it a denial of the legal regime of racial discrimination of the Jim Crow South and the broader culture of racism. Recognizing the history of American racism without succumbing to the temptation to read racism into the fabric of everything seems to be a challenge for many Americans today. It is especially a challenge for many academics who are drawn to a kind of racial reductionism.

Who are these racial reductionists? Some of them are the self-styled denizens of the Alt-Right. And some are supporters of Black Lives Matter and kindred groups. For an extreme racial reductionist, think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose best-selling book, Between the World and Me, is a primer in how to blame white racism for anything and everything that a black American might find dissatisfying in life.

In Charlottesville last Saturday, we saw the collision of partisans of these two forms of reductionism.  There may well have been individuals among the protesters who held more complicated and historically nuanced views of America, but they were not driving the Alt-Right provocateurs or the counter-protesters, both of whom were in the grip of their oppositional manias. Racial reductionists are not necessarily violent and not necessarily apologists for violence. But both sides clearly have attracted thuggish followers. Antifa protesters carrying baseball bats and two-by-fours are not showing up to celebrate the legacy of Gandhi.

The Alt-Right is, to be sure, a pernicious reactionary movement. It has a tiny national following—perhaps not much more than a few thousand. Only a few hundred showed up in Charlottesville. But the movement has achieved massive news coverage by its theatrics and the eagerness of the media to play it up as a supposed reflection of President Trump’s base of support. The counter-protesters are also a pernicious reactionary movement who have seized a poisonous sideshow as somehow exemplifying part of the American mainstream.

The Poison Is Spreading

The Wall Street Journal has commendably called out the “deeper ailment” as “The Poison of Identity Politics.”

That poison is spreading. Spencer’s group plans rallies at Texas A&M and the University of Florida. But the leftist version of the poison has entered the bloodstream of American higher education and is to be found almost everywhere. Mark Lilla’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Liberal Crack-Up” is an excellent historical account of how the Democratic Party trapped itself in obsessions over grievance-based accounts of personal identity. What was lost, says Lilla, was “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.”

Protesting and counter-protesting are seldom tactics aimed at “persuading” anyone. They are aimed at displaying to a larger audience of supposed on-lookers the power of the protesters. It is the power to bring excited people together to shout and to act in unison, to threaten violence, and at times to commit it. The campus left has been very busy at enacting these kinds of theatrics over the last several years at Mizzou, Yale, Berkeley, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, and Evergreen, to mention only the most prominent examples.

Which brings me back to the University of Virginia, which was a pioneer of sorts in the invention of the insta-riot as a form of political communication. On November 20, 2014, not long after Rolling Stone published its false story about a rape at the UVA Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, five masked women and two men vandalized the building. This followed vociferous protests culminating in a “Take Back the Party: End Rape Now” rally, which drew hundreds of participants. President Sullivan then suspended all the fraternities until January 9, 2015. An imaginary crime elevated to an ardent belief turned UVA into a place where the victim mythology triumphed over any concern for the truth.

Surely that wasn’t lost on Richard Spencer when he went in search of a venue that would be susceptible to his provocations.

Jefferson’s University

Thus it may be worth taking a further look at what Sullivan said after this weekend’s tragic turn of events: “The University is about freedom of speech, but free speech is not the same as violence. We strongly condemn this kind of abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community.”

“The University is about freedom of speech” might sound right on first hearing, but it is not how Jefferson would have put it. Freedom of speech is a means to an end, but not the purpose of the university.  What is? Jefferson explains:

To form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend; To expound the principles and structure of government, …and a sound spirit of legislation, which…shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another; to harmonize and promote the interests of agriculture, manufactures and commerce…; to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and comforts of human life; and, generally, to form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others and of happiness within themselves. These are the objects of that higher grade of education, the benefits and blessings of which the Legislature now propose to provide for the good and ornament of their country.

To accomplish these goals, freedom of speech is an important tool. Those who pick up the tool only to employ it as a club to beat others are, however, outside the bounds of the “academical” community.  Sullivan hasn’t been an especially good steward of that principle. Her condemning the Alt-Right for “abhorrent and intimidating behavior whose purpose is only to create fear and cause divisions in the community” is all to the good. But it would be helpful if she showed some glimmer of understanding that these nasty (and sometimes murderous) extremists are the mirror image of other nasty (and often violent) extremists on the other side.

A university is properly a place where there is no place for those who disdain the rule of law, the dictates of civility, and the need for peaceful argument. Inviting identity politics to take root and then complaining that the vine is bearing its predictable fruit is a failure of presidential leadership. And that’s true of all kinds of presidents.

The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression

In January 2015 the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression issued a brief report which eloquently made a case for the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture.”  I commented at the time in an approving manner.  Over the ensuing months, the Chicago statement has gathered more and more approval.  In April the faculty of Princeton University incorporated much of the Chicago statement into a statement of their own.   On September 28, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the statement. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also urged over 19,000 trustees to embrace it.

In an era when student activists on many campuses are attempting to silence expression of views they disagree with, the University of Chicago statement is a welcome counter-measure.  It is easy to see why principled scholars and organizations concerned about the integrity of the university are drawn to it.

Not the Whole Loaf

But I urge caution.  The Chicago statement is, in effect, half a loaf.  And sometimes half a loaf can be worse than none.  The basic problem with the statement is that it presents a context-free defense of freedom of expression. It does not offer any reason why such freedom is important and, in the absence of such a reason, it amounts to an endorsement of much of what is currently wrong with our colleges and universities.

To be sure, there is much in the statement that is attractive and endorsing it makes sense as a tactical move against “social justice warriors” who want to preempt important debates.  If the Chicago statement were to be understood as mainly a call for the university to respect the rights of outside speakers to have their say, regardless of viewpoint, it would be welcome without any serious reservations. But the statement does not contextualize itself to outside speakers and appears to apply equally to speech within the university.  The differences between outside speakers and speech within the university, however, are profoundly important.  The latter involve considerations that the Chicago committee ought to address but did not.

Four Flaws

In that light the statement has some serious flaws as an enunciation of general principles.  It is easy to imagine new circumstances where the positions laid forth in the Chicago statement would themselves become impediments to good education.  Indeed, some of these circumstances are already here.

There are four flaws. The statement ignores the need for true speech, wrongly elevates free speech over teaching, fails to say why free speech is important on college campuses, and is conducive to the further trivialization of the university.

First, the statement says “freedom of expression,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “freedom to debate” are “fundamental” to the university.  Surely they are.  The trouble is that other principles are no less fundamental.  One might think of the pursuit of truth; the obligation to distinguish the important from the trivial; integrity in research; respect for freedoms besides academic freedom; and genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students.

 The Pursuit of Truth

I grant that most of these do not spring readily to mind for faculty members who are not at the moment faced with a conflict, say, between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.  But such conflicts are never far off.  People lie, frequently.  Freedom of expression permits lies and misrepresentations and, up to a point, protects the liar in his exercise of the right.  The “fundamental” regard of the university for freedom of expression, however, is in direct tension with the fundamental regard the university must also have for the truth.  How does the Chicago statement handle this?  It is silent on the matter.  The statement does indeed say that “freedom to debate and discuss” is not absolute.  That freedom must bend in some cases:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Defamation, threats, harassment, and violations of privacy are out.  But on matters such as fabrication of data, perjury, deliberate historical misrepresentation, suppression of discrepant evidence, false testimony, plagiarism, and the like, the statement says nothing.

I would not infer from this that the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression regards these as inconsequential matters.  Rather, it was charged with addressing the principle of freedom of expression and it did so, leaving various complications aside.

A Dangerous Mistake

Perhaps the University of Chicago is a community so well ordered that it could trust itself to deal with “freedom of expression” as an isolate—a fundamental that need not be considered in the company of other fundamentals.  Be that as it may, I think it is a dangerous mistake for colleges and universities across the country to adopt this statement as is, without creating a conceptual context in which other fundamentals are given due consideration and weight.

Let me acknowledge that extending the discussion in the direction of other such fundamentals may well prove difficult and frustrating.  A simple statement of principle—that freedom of expression is fundamental for a university—can be pure and inspiring.  Recognition of counterbalancing and sometimes contradictory principles that must somehow be made to mesh is less an occasion for rhetorical triumph.  But it returns us to the real world of higher education where flawed men and women struggle for achievement in a special kind of community.

Where’s the Word ‘Curriculum’?

Second, the Chicago statement treats freedom of expression as something unmoored by the curriculum.  Indeed the words “curriculum” and “course” (in the sense of an academic course) never appear in the statement.  The only example of freedom of expression that is cited is a Communist Party candidate invited to speak on campus by a student organization.  All of the other statements on academic freedom are hortatory declarations of the abstract principle.  But the reality is that colleges and universities must make practical choices to teach this subject, and not that one.

If they have—as the University of Chicago has—a core curriculum, they must decide which disciplines should be represented, and which not.  No university is so large that it can encompass every subject.  It must makes choices, just as the individual faculty member must makes exclusionary decisions in every syllabus and every time a class meets.  The license to make these choices is part of academic freedom but it is a particularly fraught aspect of academic freedom because it presents the question:  Who decides?

One approach maximizes the autonomy of the individual faculty member to teach what he wants to teach.  But even the university that leans far in this direction reserves the key power to approve a course or not.  And the best colleges and universities devote great care to the work of shaping their academic programs.

In short, the “fundamental” right of free expression is dramatically limited in the single most important context of higher education:  the college or university’s decisions about what should be taught.

What Should Be Taught

The Chicago statement in this regard sounds like a dream of faculty members reveling in the idea that free expression can be upheld as the governing principle of an institution that is in fact ruled by a dramatically contrary principle:  the need to provide students with a coherent education.

Third, the assertion of the “fundamental” value of freedom of expression sidesteps the underlying rationale for free expression.  The statement treats free expression as so integral to the university that no explanation is needed; just assertion.  Perhaps this reflects disagreement among the committee members on what the rationale for free expression should be, but the omission is odd.  In my view what makes free expression fundamental is that it prevents sleepwalking.

It treats every idea as open in principle to challenge, which means even the best ideas must be maintained by alert, intelligent, and informed people who are ready with good arguments and robust evidence, and who are also ready to put in the necessary time and effort to defend them.  Free expression exists as the antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled propositions.  It does not allow “consensus” or appeal to the authority of either the crowd or the expert to settle a dispute.

But if I am right about this rationale, free expression should lean towards these ends.  Free expression should not itself be a cover for mob rule (“consensus”), mere doctrine, or efforts to shut the door to further inquiry.  The rise of “studies” departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression.  To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.

Chicago vs. Yale

The Chicago statement veers away from any such understanding of freedom of expression.  As far as the statement goes, all expressions enjoy the same title to “freedom of expression.”  That’s a view that comports pretty well with the First Amendment, but comports very poorly with the reasons why higher education values freedom of expression.

As it happens, the Chicago statement can be usefully contrasted with an earlier statement of freedom of expression issued in December 1974 by Yale, as the result of the deliberations of a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster.  The Yale statement is every bit as vigorous in its support for freedom of expression as the Chicago statement, but at 31 pages, it is longer than the Chicago statement (3 pages), more in-depth, and attentive to complications that the Chicago statement ignores.  Perhaps most importantly, the Yale statement explains why freedom of expression should matter to a university.  Its first sentence declares: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  There is nothing comparable to this in the Chicago statement.

Fourth, the Chicago statement rests easily with the post-modern and (ironically) the anti-foundationalist condition of the contemporary university.  In treating free expression as an end in itself and divorcing it from any concern about the processes that establish and dis-establish intellectual authority, the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.  Again, these conditions may not prevail at the University of Chicago, but when other colleges and universities emulate or adopt the Chicago statement, they are also giving their imprimatur to an education that endorses formless exploration over purposeful inquiry.

An Unmoored Freedom

These four flaws in the Chicago statement have a kindred character.  All four have to do with the superficiality of the statement, which leaves out essential things:  other fundamentals; the shaping of the curriculum which is necessarily guided by principles above and beyond freedom of expression; the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate; and the tendency of an unmoored freedom of expression to perpetuate the intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary university.

There are, of course, competing views about the purposes of higher education, an institution that must somehow blend discovering new knowledge, transmitting existing knowledge, sustaining the legacy of civilization, shaping character, preparing students for productive lives, and teaching students how to live responsibly in freedom.   Free expression is a vital component of several of these ends, and none more so than the last.  We uphold freedom of expression in large part to teach students to become citizens who can govern themselves wisely in our representative democracy.  But that requires that we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful—which in turn means that we must pay attention to its purposes.

I’d recommend that the University of Chicago continue the work of the committee that wrote the statement by asking and answering the follow-up questions:  Why is freedom of expression important?  How does it advance the education of students?

It is in the spirit of the Chicago statement to welcome debate.  As far as I can tell, there has been little or no debate over the statement itself.  I offer these four points for the consideration of any college or university that is considering FIRE’s invitation to endorse the Chicago statement.  And I offer them as well for the benefit of the University of Chicago, which would seem to welcome, to borrow President Robert M. Hutchins’ apercu, the kind of “free inquiry [that] is indispensable to the good life.”

‘Being Offended Is Not a Plus for You’

Excerpts from Ian McEwan’s commencement speech at Dickinson College, May 17, 2015

I would like to share a few thoughts with you about free speech. Let’s begin on a positive note: there is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.

But free speech was, is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the center. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around….

It’s worth remembering this: freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess (of habeas corpus and due process, of universal franchise and of assembly, union representation, sexual equality, of sexual preference, of the rights of children, of animals – the list goes on) has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence.

No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative. It was a historical context of relative freedom of speech that made possible the work of those who were determined to extend that liberty. John Milton, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes – the roll call is long and honorable – and that is why an education in the liberal arts is so vital to the culture you are about to contribute to.

Take a long journey from these shores as I’m sure many of you will, and you will find the condition of free expression to be desperate. Across almost the entire Middle East, free thought can bring punishment or death, from governments or from street mobs or motivated individuals. The same is true in Bangladesh, Pakistan, across great swathes of Africa. These past years the public space for free thought in Russia has been shrinking. In China, state monitoring of free expression is on an industrial scale. To censor daily the internet alone, the Chinese government employs as many as fifty thousand bureaucrats – a level of thought repression unprecedented in human history.

Paradoxically, it’s all the more important to be vigilant for free expression wherever it flourishes. And nowhere has it been more jealously guarded than under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Which is why it has been so puzzling lately, when we saw scores of American writers publicly disassociating themselves from a PEN gala to honor the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organized religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire.

Hebdo’s offices were fire-bombed in 2011, and the journalists kept going. They received constant death threats – and they kept going. In January nine colleagues were murdered, gunned down, in their office – the editorial staff kept going and within days they had produced an edition whose cover forgave their attackers. Tout est pardonne, all is forgiven. All this, when in the U.S. and U.K. one threatening phone call can be enough to stop a major publishing house in its tracks.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo came from religious fanatics whose allegiances became clear when one of the accomplices made her way from France, through Turkey to ISIS in Syria. Remember, this is a form of fanaticism whose victims, across Africa and the Middle East, are mostly Muslims – Muslim gays and feminists, Muslim reformists, bloggers, human rights activists, dissidents, apostates, novelists, and ordinary citizens, including children, murdered in or kidnapped from their schools….

But note the end of the Hebdo affair: the gala went ahead, the surviving journalists received a thunderous and prolonged standing ovation from American PEN.

Timothy Garton Ash reminds us in a new book on free speech that “The U.S. Supreme Court has described academic freedom as a ‘special concern of the First Amendment.'” Worrying too, then, is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim, highly critical of Islam, too critical for some. As a victim herself, she has campaigned against female genital mutilation. She has campaigned for the rights of Muslim women. In a recent book she has argued that for Islam to live more at ease in the modern world it needs to rethink its attitudes to homosexuality, to the interpretation of the Koran as the literal word of God, to blasphemy, to punishing severely those who want to leave the religion.

Contrary to what some have suggested, such arguments are neither racist nor driven by hatred. But she has received death threats. Crucially, on many American campuses she is not welcomed, and, notoriously, Brandeis withdrew its offer of an honorary degree. Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery. Surely, we have not forgotten the lessons of the Salman Rushdie affair.

Campus intolerance of inconvenient speakers is hardly new. Back in the sixties my own university blocked a psychologist for promoting the idea of a hereditable component to intelligence. In the seventies, the great American biologist E.O. Wilson was drowned out for suggesting a genetic element in human social behavior. As I remember, both men were called fascists. The ideas of these men did not fit prevailing ideologies, but their views are unexceptionable today.

More broadly – the internet has, of course, provided extraordinary possibilities for free speech. At the same time, it has taken us onto some difficult and unexpected terrain. It has led to the slow decline of local newspapers, and so removed a skeptical and knowledgeable voice from local politics. Privacy is an essential element of free expression; the Snowden files have revealed an extraordinary and unnecessary level of email surveillance by government agencies.

Another essential element of free expression is access to information; the internet has concentrated huge power over that access into the hands of private companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. We need to be careful that such power is not abused. Large pharmaceutical companies have been known to withhold research information vital to the public interest. On another scale, the death of young black men in police custody could be framed as the ultimate sanction against free expression. As indeed is poverty and poor educational resources….

But it can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as ‘hate speech’ or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society. Being robust is no bad thing. Either engage, with arguments – not with banishments and certainly not with guns – or, as an American Muslim teacher said recently at Friday prayers, ignore the entire matter.

In making your mind up on these issues, I hope you’ll remember your time at Dickinson and the novels you may have read here. It would prompt you, I hope, in the direction of mental freedom. The novel as a literary form was born out of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, on earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are right with regard to their narrow interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is, or can be, the ultimate expression of free speech.

I hope you’ll use your fine liberal education to preserve for future generations the beautiful and precious but also awkward, sometimes inconvenient and even offensive culture of freedom of expression we have. Take with you these celebrated words of George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter, “We may be certain that Dickinson has not prepared you to be sheep.” Good luck 2015 graduates in whatever you choose to do in life.